Mary Somerville: the world’s first scientist, and more

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The history of science is one that is largely male-dominated. Therefore, it is even more remarkable that the term ‘scientist’, which we now commonly use throughout society to underpin the very act of seeking out knowledge of the natural world, was initially coined for a woman: Mary Somerville.

Born in 1780, Somerville was an intellectual giant of her age. In her mathematical and scientific pursuits, she was able to converse confidently with some of the foremost minds in the natural philosophic community (natural philosophy previously having been the name of scientific endeavour). More so, she was able to do this without attending university, instead acquiring knowledge through her own self-teaching abilities.

Growing up in a lower middle-class household in Scotland, she received a basic education — though this was not any more than was expected of a girl at the time. It was only due to her boundless curiosity in the world around her which she cultivated through various countryside excursions, and through reading the books in her father’s private library, that she was given the spark that became a lifelong love of knowledge and explanation.

She was adept in almost all areas of scientific pursuit

As her early academic interests, perceived as boyish, were shunned in the household, she was sent to learn needlework and domestic duties (both of which she met with annoyance). She still attempted to keep up with the more extensive education that boys in her town were provided with (and indeed often surpassed them).

As a maturing young woman of 18, she was introduced into society: attending balls and spectacles in Edinburgh and dancing with nobility. She was outwardly renown as a beauty and was married in 1804 to a wealthy physician.

With her free time as a provincial housewife, she now began to study seriously and continued this after she became a widow three years later. She read the works of Newton, Laplace, Lagrange, and others scientific notables.

By her early thirties, she was solving complex problems and publishing her results in philosophical journals of the time. For this she received awards and public notoriety.

An incredible polymath, she was adept in almost all areas of scientific pursuit. Her interests were so multi-varied and her abilities so keen that she was able to become knowledgeable in mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, geography, and astronomy, as shown in the vast scope of her publications.

John Stuart Mill presented Somerville with his 1868 parliamentary petition for women’s suffrage

Her works On the connexion of the physical sciences’ and ‘Physical Geography remained staples years after her death. She was also able to speak Latin and Ancient Greek fluently. Biographer Renee Bergland claimed that ‘she was no mere astronomer, physicist, or chemist, but a visionary thinker’, and one who surmounted daunting mental obstacles

Beyond purely academic interests, she somehow also found time to push her political beliefs and aided in the fight to improve the rights of women. John Stuart Mill presented Somerville with his 1868 parliamentary petition for women’s suffrage — of which she provided the first signature.

She eventually became an image in her own right, espousing the ability of women to improve their situation through intellectual pursuit — to gain an equal footing with men in that regard would later be intrinsic to suffragist efforts. Even more so in her long list of achievements, she was tutor to another giant of mathematical science: Ada Lovelace, a pioneering force in computer mechanics.

As shown, Somerville’s life encapsulated so diverse a litany of achievement and she should act as testament to the power of knowledge to break down barriers. Her legacy was so great that her name was given to an Oxford College, one that was among the first to allow women to attend the ancient university. Among the names of those who helped push women’s liberation, she must be ranked as one of the foremost, though this is not understate her incredible scientific achievement. Certainly, the true testament to her legacy came in her obituary which read: ‘whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.’

Image: Lithograph by T. Phillips, Wellcome Collection

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